Paul Shaw
Willi Kunz, Typography:
Formation + Transformation

Modernism in graphic design has been in retreat for nearly a quarter of a century, but it still retains fierce adherents. One of the most eloquent is Willi Kunz, who sees himself as carrying on the tradition begun by Jan Tschichold and furthered by Emil Ruder, Karl Gerstner and Wolfgang Weingart. His forum has not been the essay or the manifesto but the textbook. Kunz first articulated his vision of “the modern project” in Typography: Micro- and Macroaesthetics (1998), which examined the microelements of typography (letters, numbers, punctuation, lines and geometric marks) and the macro elements of design (space, structure, sequence, contrast and counterform). That book now has a companion in Typography: Form + TransFormation that continues Kunz’s argument for the utility and validity of modernism.

This time Kunz investigates the concepts of formation, transformation and topology: how letters and their counterforms provide the basis for forming logos and symbols; how the rhythm of words (individually, in lines and in blocks of text) plays a critical role in enlivening information; how space can be transformed through 2-dimensional representations of folding; and how the layering of text, background shapes, lines and grids can create richer designs. Kunz’s approach to typography—stressing information over persuasion or immersive experience—is rational, analytical and mathematical. His intent is to provide an intellectual basis for an aesthetic whose principal goal is clarity. Echoing the Neue Typographie of the 1920s Kunz asserts, “Good typography is clear typography.”

Despite his emphasis on clarity, Kunz recognizes the importance of emotion. His typography is about “conveying information in the shortest amount of time and in a visually enticing way”. In Typography: Form + TransFormation he shows how information can be transformed into meaning, meaning that is both intellectually satisfying and emotionally engaging. He does this best by breaking down and analyzing his own typographic designs, the majority of them for Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. This portion of the book is reminiscent of the behind-the-scenes peak Josef Müller-Brockmann provided for some of his celebrated music posters, except that Kunz’s work is more complex, both visually and intellectually.

Typography: Form + TransFormation is not a book for everyone. Those seeking advice on the use of small caps and old style figures or methods of avoiding widows and orphans should go elsewhere; as should those eager to know the distinctions between true and false Garamonds, or what the newest “hot” typeface is. But for those who want to learn how typography can aid in dissecting, organizing and articulating information there is not a better place to begin.